India-Iran Ties and the Relevance of the Chabahar Project

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Hassan Rouhani
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the President of Iran, Mr. Hassan Rouhani during the joint Press Statement in Tehran.

Recently, the US granted India an exemption with regard to the Chabahar Port (located in the Sistan Baluchistan Province in Iran). India is developing this port, jointly along with Iran and Afghanistan. A Senior US State Department official, on December 18, 2019, issued a statement, saying:

“We have provided a narrow exemption (to India) for the development of Chabahar that allows for the construction of the port and the rail line that allows for the export of refined oil products to Afghanistan”. 

Significantly, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited Iran and co-chaired a joint commission meeting on December 22, 2019 with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Both sides agreed to strengthen their economic relations and there was a strong emphasis on accelerating the progress of the Chabahar Project.

In 2016, an agreement was signed between India, Iran and Afghanistan, to enhance trilateral connectivity, one of the important components of the project was a railway line which would connect Chabahar with Delaram in Afghanistan, through Zahedan (Iran) and Zaranj (Afghanistan). 

In December 2018, India was handed over Phase one (Shahid Beheshti) of the project for a period of 18 months. 

 New Delhi-Iran ties downhill 

Ever since May 2019, New Delhi-Iran ties have witnessed a steady deterioration. After the US ended the waiver, which it had provided India to purchase oil from Iran, New Delhi was circumspect with regard to economic ties with Iran. Tehran has expressed its displeasure on more than one occasion

Senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have expressed their disappointment, saying that New Delhi has been toeing the US line. In November 2019, Zarif stated that progress on the Chabahar Project has been slow, and  thatChabahar is much greater than India and Iran. Chabahar affects regional stability.”

Apart from New Delhi adopting a cautious approach towards Iran, after the hard line stance Washington has taken vis-à-vis Iran on economic issues, another bone of contention between New Delhi and Tehran has been Iran’s statements on Jammu and Kashmir, post the revocation of Article 370 (Which granted special status .The Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei:

“We’re concerned about Muslims’ situation in Kashmir. We have good relations with India, but we expect the Indian government to adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir and prevent the oppression & bullying of Muslims in this region,”

These comments on Kashmir did not go down well with India. In September 2019, Iranian President and Indian PM did meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to put the relationship back on track. 

Iran willing to get China and Pakistan to join Chabahar 

It would also be pertinent to point out, that the Iranian Foreign Minister has invited Pakistan and China, to join the Chabahar project, on more than one occasion. The first time he did so was in 2018, and in May 2019, he spoke about the possibility of connecting Chabahar with Gwadar.

New Delhi is closely monitoring this development as Iran-Pakistan ties have witnessed an upswing in recent months. While the Pakistani PM visited Iran in October 2019, and drew praise from the Iranian President for his role in trying to bring about peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In November 2019, Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Army Chief visited Tehran and sought to strengthen security cooperation between both countries.

Commenting on the changes in Tehran-Islamabad ties, a top Indian strategic analyst, M Bhadrakumar stated:

“…Pakistan is closely gauging the downhill slide in the India-Iran relationship and estimating that the 40-year old Indian strategic embrace of Iran as a ‘second front’ is ending……for the first time since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Iranian leadership is appreciating Pakistan’s independent foreign policies.”

Why Chabahar matters 

Chabahar is important because New Delhi has been attempting to build a counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and to enhance its image as far as strengthening regional connectivity and trade is concerned.

Secondly, connectivity with Afghanistan is a serious issue for India. While given the tense relations between India and Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that Islamabad will provide India land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia (in 2017, there were reports that the Pakistan army was willing to examine the issue of transit trade to Afghanistan). The India-Afghanistan air corridor which was begun in 2017 with the intention of strengthening economic ties between India and Afghanistan has also been affected in recent months, due to the turbulence in ties between both countries.

New Delhi’s record, in terms of big ticket connectivity projects has not been stellar. It is time, that the government pays closer attention to the Chabahar project, given its strategic and economic importance. New Delhi should also stop viewing ties with neighbors, from a singular lens. Other countries have their own strategic interests, which may not converge with New Delhi’s. Iran, for instance, has been strengthening ties with Beijing and Islamabad. The reality is that New Delhi cannot dictate Tehran’s ties with Beijing and Islamabad. Hopefully, the Chabahar Project would pave the way for greater regional connectivity, and also push  other countries in the region to move away, from a simplistic zero-sum approach towards complex issues.

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India) [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.